Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Chief is Back -- I was a little late to RFK last night, for the Nats-Mets game. As I as walking past the Armory, the fireworks rose up above RFK and exploded in the early evening sky, signaling that one of the Nationals had hit a home run. The first time the Nats scored during the first inning this year. Coming in the 23rd game of the season, it hardly approached the historic streak of 28 games without scoring in the first inning, held by a Chicago White Sox team of yore -- but, it was an amazing streak of early futility.

As I settled in my seat during the second inning, the scoreboard registered a 3-0 lead, coming off Austin Kearns' three-run slam. This was a surprise on two levels -- reflecting the Nats' first first-inning score, and also reflecting that young Matt Chico had kept the powerful Mets' lineup off the board in the first inning. He did the same in the second inning, before surrendering runs in the third and fourth innings.

Chico was a surprise, as he earned his second win of the year, pitching far better than he did in his last start, and showing much better control than he has in any of his prior starts. The real story, though, was the Nats' bullpen. In the sixth inning, Saul Rivera replaced Chico, with the bases loaded, and the Nats clinging to a 3-2 lead. Rivera struck out the Mets' pitcher, Oliver Perez. With the crowd roaring for a strikeout, Rivera got Jose Reyes to ground out to Ronnie Belliard.

The Nats extended the lead to 4-2, in the bottom of the sixth. Rivera returned to the mound in the seventh inning, and retired the side in order. In the eighth inning, Jon Rauch gave up back-to-back doubles that brought he Mets back to one-run again. Then, Rauch responded by getting three straight fly ball outs, setting the stage for Chad Cordero in the ninth.

"The Chief" had struggled in each of his outings this year, but on this night, Cordero came out of the gate with his overpowering fastball. It made all the difference. Cordero dominated Reyes, who finally hit a weak foul pop fly that Ryan Zimmerman put away for the first out. The second out was a long fly by Paul LoDuca, that settled into Chris Snelling's glove just shy of the warning track in left center.

That brought up Carlos Beltran, as the Mets final hope. Cordero blew strike one down the heart of the plate. When Cordero began his windup for the next pitch, with the crowd roaring, Beltran signaled for a "time out." The umpire, either didn't notice, or decided not to give it. Beltran had started to step out of the box, but hurried to get back into his hitting stance, as Cordero reared back to fire his next pitch. The ball blew down the middle for strike two. Finally, Beltran popped up to Belliard, and "the Chief" closed out his first 1-2-3 inning, this season. The fireworks exploded over RFK, for a second time.

Summing up -- a lot of good signs for the Nats here: Good defense, including a spectacular grab by Zimmerman in the second inning; Kearns getting back his power stroke; scoring runs in the first inning, for the first time this year; Chico walking only one batter over 5-plus innings, the strong middle relief pitching; and Cordero setting down the Mets' best, in order. There was also good news from the minor leagues, as Jason Simontacchi pitched five good innings in a AAA rehab outing. The Nats' quest to avoid 100 losses is starting to look like mission possible.

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